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Posts Tagged ‘family’

Visible Man: An Interview with Mitchell S. Jackson

January 30, 2014 | by

Portland

A still from the book trailer for The Residue Years.

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, was published last fall and drew immediate notice for its amazing use of language and voice, the cadence of its sentences, and the authenticity at its center. It tells the sweet, sad story of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son, Champ, as they both struggle in an African American Portland neighborhood that was ravaged by crack in the nineties.

Critics said the novel was about race, or poverty, or America’s failed war on drugs. Big, social themes. Personally, I disagree: to my mind, The Residue Years is a personal story, a novel about love, redemption, and freedom. Interspersed throughout are a blank form for a rehabilitation center, a police report, a Baptist church member registration form, a petition for child custody—subtle reminders that this novel is also about all the ways in which we are held captive by institutions that, more often than not, fail us. Between these pauses lie some three-hundred pages of beautiful sentences that mix urban slang with pitch-perfect lyricism, resulting in a new way of expressing American English—at least to my European eyes. Victor LaValle agrees: “It’s tough to write beautifully about ugly things, but Mitchell S. Jackson makes it look easy.” Amy Hempel has said that Grace and Champ are one of the fictional families she has cared about the most. And that’s at the heart of Mitchell’s novel: family.

Last month I fired up Skype and talked to Mitchell for more than an hour—I was in Milan, and he in Brooklyn—about his novel, his writing, and the dangers of how books are marketed today.

Your language is a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang—it goes up and down and back and forth. I’m curious to know if you tried to bring together those worlds consciously.

I do feel like I’m in the middle there. I have my preliterary experiences in the urban world, listening to a bunch of hip-hop and listening to my uncles, my friends. When I got in school and started reading, I found people who were writing about a similar kind of experience, and whom I thought the canon respected. But I don’t feel like I’m in a tradition. I don’t think I read deeply enough in either field to really know about a tradition. I do have influences—James Baldwin, of course, and John Edgar Wideman. But also Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. I like to stay in the middle. I think that that tension lets me play around with voice.

What was your starting point for the novel?

I started writing autobiographical scenes and tried to string them together. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations. It took me years to figure out what they really wanted. I had a premise—mother on drugs, son sells drugs—but that’s not human. Those are just things people do. It took me some time to figure out what the humanity in the characters was. I saw that this story was really about a mother and a son, about their will to redeem themselves from the hurt they’d caused. Once I realized that, I went back and rewrote a lot of stuff. When I started, the characters were so close to my own life that I felt like they had to speak and act and behave like the people they were based on.

Champ and Grace began as avatars of you and your mom?

At the beginning, and then they became composites. But the origin was in truth. Once you realize the characters have a life of their own and you let them do what’s right for them, the work opens up. I wish I were as smart as Champ, but I’m not as smart as him. Read More »

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All We Had

December 4, 2013 | by

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Photo: Luigi Anzivino.

My boyfriend Keith does not like my dumplings. He thinks they’re plain-tasting. I stir the sticky dough. He says that even their color is unappetizing. Like paste, he tells me, like something thick from inside an engine.

“Like papier-mâché, almost,” he says, and I look at him and blink.

Keith and I have been standing in my cramped kitchen for over an hour now, scraping spoons against spoons, and it’s late. On the table behind us, there’s a bowl of French-cut green beans and a whole chicken, getting cold. I take a pinch of flour and release it over the bowl.

“Like this,” I say, but still the consistency won’t come together in the way I know it can. I add another pinch, and then another, and then another.

The recipe for the dish is my grandmother’s, and it is simple: whisk together flour and egg, whisk until the dough sticks to the spoon and then, at last, snaps back against the bowl. It’s all about consistency, something you can’t put your finger on, something you just have to know. That is why there is no written recipe for this dish, this congealed mess of white that gets boiled in bits and drenched in sour cream and salt and pepper. There is no written recipe because how do you put your finger on dumpling elasticity?

“So you just know?” Keith asks. He dips his finger into the simmering stock beside us, pulling it to his lips.

“I just know,” I say. Read More »

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Kimchi and Turkey

November 27, 2013 | by

kimchi

This Thanksgiving will be only the second time in thirty-six years I won’t be with my mother for the holiday. Last year was the first, when I spent it with my wife and her family. All day long I sat in her mother’s condo above the shores of Lake Erie—ice floes stretching to the horizon—and I thought about my mother, how she always labored over the turkey and dressing, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, dumplings, corn, green beans, and three of four pies. That’s probably not that uncommon in a lot of homes across the country or in the Appalachian South where I was raised and where we like to serve two starches for every vegetable. But what is unusual is the sight of my mother, a Korean woman of five feet four inches, with beautiful salt and pepper hair, and a round face and almond-shaped eyes working away in the kitchen. Forty-three years ago she left Masan, South Korea, after marrying my father, and when she came to this country, after brief spells in Phoenix and Toledo, they settled in the hills of southeastern Kentucky. She was a vegetarian then but that was not a lifestyle decision. It was borne of necessity. Her family had never had enough money to afford beef, pork, or poultry, items considered expensive delicacies when she was a child, and her body had not learned to digest them. Rice (bop) was scarce and precious, as precious as cornmeal to my father’s family when he had been a child, and it was often the only thing she had to eat. And when there was no food at all, my halmuni still lit a fire and boiled water so that smoke would rise from their chimney and the other villagers would not know the family had nothing to eat.

Read More »

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Bones

October 9, 2013 | by

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You discover one day—while everyone else is doing whatever it is that makes them happy—that you can almost pop one of the bones in your hand right out of the skin. It’s awesome. First, you practice in secret, when you’re bored or exasperated by school. But one day, you are practicing out in the open when someone notices the little bit of white sticking out, and they say, Wow, how cool, and they ask you to do it again. Look at this guy, they say—when formerly you were ignored or marginalized or made to feel you were odd or would at any rate never to amount to much—and it occurs to you: maybe you’re on to something.

You get good at it, the bone popping, and in college you realize there’s a whole department devoted to the study of it: how they did it in the old days, how it became different when the boats came to North America. Yet, on the musty college campus, everything seems safe and no one’s trying hard enough. In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone doing a good or brave job of bone popping.

Eventually, you find places in the big city—loft buildings, various dark cafés—where people gather. Most can pop one or two hand bones, but a few can do their whole arm bone or an entire leg. Some of these people are actually making a living doing this. They get contracts to spend years on one big bone popping. Some win awards, or fellowships. But no matter how good you get, one old timer says, never remove your heart. Then you’re dead.

So you practice, getting good, refining your technique. Read More »

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I Found My Thrill

October 3, 2013 | by

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Down among the counties that help earn New Jersey its Garden State moniker, there lies the hamlet of New Egypt. Within it is the sixty-acre blueberry patch my grandparents used to own. Drive down I-95 through Newark toward the shore to see the world flash from soot gray to Granny Smith green as you are surrounded by towering cornstalks.

Four years ago, my wife, Tiffan, and I  made the pilgrimage to Jersey from Manhattan in lieu of our usual fall foliage trip (long story short: I had seen a movie that dissed soi-disant leafers and felt suitably shamed). Plus, I had heard that from back-to-school time through Thanksgiving, Emery’s Farm offered seasonal activities—pumpkin picking, hay rides. Tiffan is from Oklahoma, and I seize any opportunity to conjure country trappings.

But I did have some legitimate claim. This farm, after all, was whither the brand name “Ross da Boss Blueberries” sprang, emblazoned on the cellophane securing the fruit in its green cardboard cartons. When my grandfather, Danny Passoff, retired from running a successful tomato business, he bought the blueberry farm as a pet project with my grandmother, and during summers, my sister and I would work on the farm.

Standing there on that fall day, I told Tiffan about those summers on the farm, about picking the choicest berries and dropping them into my pail—an old coffee canister—with tinny thuds. In the onomatopoeic language of Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book Blueberries for Sal, this is described as “ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk.” By July, the bushes are heavy with the luscious blue fatties, their puckered sepals folded back, mushy marbles that squish deliciously between the teeth. In my memory, that time in my life is, like Sal’s, rendered in the book’s distinctive navy-and-raincoat-yellow palette.

In McCloskey’s book, a childhood favorite, little Sal goes with her mother to Blueberry Hill, only to get lost and temporarily switch mothers with a bear cub. Sal’s mother finds her wandering child by recognizing the cacophony of the berries—“ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk”—she throws into her bucket. Read More »

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Radio Silence

October 2, 2013 | by

Highway 51 Bridge Between Wagoner And Coweta

I am driving west on Highway 51. It’s Tuesday, the day before Indie’s ninth birthday, and as I pass the city limits of Stillwater on my way to Oklahoma City, I switch from the Sinatra station, the one playing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” to the seventies station, the one playing Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It in a Love Song.” I’m gonna be leavin’ at the break of dawn. I rarely listen to the song now, though sometimes when Indie is in the car, I’ll let it play, even sing along, assume the next time she asks me why he left, I can say, “You know that song, the one about the guy who never had a damn thing but what he had, he had to leave it behind?” She’ll know the song. So many times, when she’s singing along to Ambrosia or Bread, Jackson Browne, especially America, in the car, I ask her how she knows all the words to those long-ago songs, and she always has the same answer, “You sing all the time.” He used to tell me that, too. I change the station to NPR.

I recognize a familiar voice:

The American family has changed. The nuclear family in the house across the street is still there, but different kinds of families live on the block, too: unmarried parents, gay parents, people who choose not to have children at all and, of course, single parents.

A new Pew Research poll asked Americans about these trends and found almost 70 percent believe that single women raising children on their own is bad for society.

Of course, there is a wide array of single mothers. Some women choose to raise children by themselves. Others find themselves without a partner through divorce or abandonment. But when seven in ten believe this is bad for society, it makes you wonder.

So we want to hear from single mothers today. How do people treat you? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I grip the steering wheel and glance at my cell phone in the cup holder. I keep my eyes out for a rest stop. Read More »

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